Upper back pain can be severe enough to keep you from being active and enjoying time with family and friends. A back injury can have a major impact on your life and work, but the sooner you pursue treatment, the easier it will be to achieve a full recovery. Keep reading to learn what causes chronic upper back pain, what symptoms to watch out for, and how to treat your pain so you can get back to your life.
The upper back, medically known as thoracic spine, is controlled by the thoracic region of the spinal cord, as well as the thoracic spinal nerves leading to it. Twelve vertebrae make up the thoracic spine, and each is attached to a rib. This creates a cage, which protects the vital organs. Upper back pain can develop anywhere from the base of the neck to the bottom of the ribcage. If a nerve in this area is injured, irritated, or pinched, you may feel pain in other areas where the nerve travels, such as your arms, belly, and chest.
One-sided upper back pain is common, as well. Most commonly, sufferers of right upper back pain are sedentary, right-handed people. Those with upper left back pain, on the other hand, are typically left-handed. Chronic upper back pain, when neglected, can become a very serious problem. Talk to your doctor to determine the best course of action.
Upper Back Pain Causes
Knowing the underlying cause of your upper back pain is important to developing a safe and effective treatment plan. Here are common root causes of upper back pain.
Improper Lifting: Poor lifting technique when picking up something heavy leads to injury and pain.
Poor Posture: Over time, sitting or standing with a rounded back and with shoulders hunched forward results in pain and stiffness. This is because poor posture places your ligaments, muscles, discs, and nerves under too much stress.
Trauma or Injury: Traumatic accidents or sudden injuries, such as a car crash, can cause long-term upper back pain. Sometimes the vertebra is fractured or is pressing on a spinal nerve.
Infection: A paraspinal abscess or a spinal epidural abscess can compress the spinal nerves or spinal cord in the upper back, causing discomfort and other symptoms.
Osteoporosis: This is a serious condition that weakens the bones and makes them prone to fractures. If you have osteoporosis, there is a high risk that you will develop upper back pain.
Joint Dysfunction: Your ribs connect to the vertebrae by joints on either side of the thoracic spine. Issues in these joints may lead to upper back pain.
Upper Back Pain Symptoms
When there is a damage to the muscles in the upper back, the immune system immediately releases inflammatory molecules that result in discomfort. Symptoms associated with upper back pain may include:
Sharp pain in upper back when taking a deep breath
Tingling or numbness in your arms
Weakness in your arms
A dull, aching pain that gets worse at night
Upper Back Pain Diagnosis
When you visit your doctor to address your constant upper back pain, he or she will take several steps to accurately diagnose the cause of your discomfort.
After discussing your medical history and your current symptoms, your doctor will conduct a thorough physical examination, observing your posture, physical condition, and range of motion. Your doctor will also examine your spine, evaluate its alignment and curvature, and feel for tenderness and muscle spasms.
A CT scan produces clear images of joints and bones, which will help your doctor verify the extent of the damage.
If your doctor suspects a nerve problem, you may need an MRI scan, which shows detailed pictures of spinal structures.
You will need a bone mineral density (BMD) test if your doctor suspects you have osteoporosis. This diagnostic procedure, which only takes five to ten minutes, will help your doctor determine the health and strength of your bones.
You may need to undergo a neurological exam to test your muscle strength, nerve changes, reflexes, and pain spread. A neurological exam also determines whether your spinal nerves have been affected.
Upper Back Pain Treatment
If your upper back pain lasts more than a week or two, consult your doctor right away. Early treatment for upper back pain is important to speed healing and recovery. Here are available upper back pain treatment options that you may want to consider.
Ice and Heat Therapy
Your upper back is anatomically connected to your shoulders, neck, and mid-back. Choosing the right heating pad and ice pack is the first step to relieving aches and pains. A neck ice pack, for example, is extremely versatile. Look for a gel pack for instant relief.
Cold therapy reduces swelling and inflammation and improves blood flow to encourage healing and relieve pain. ( See Product)
When your upper back pain flares up, you can use over-the-counter painkillers to alleviate your symptoms. Take anti-inflammatory medications according to package directions, and speak to your doctor before beginning any new medications.
Massage therapy eases pain and relaxes the muscles, while also increasing mobility and improving circulation. An easy way to get the benefits of a massage, without the inconvenience and expense, is to use a massage roller ball. You can control the amount of pressure and relax your tired, sore, and aching upper back muscles.
Massage roller balls are simple, portable tools to address muscle knots and relieve upper back pain. (See Product)
Electrotherapy is a drug-free, non-invasive treatment to reduce pain. TENS units have adjustable intensity to ease tired muscles, promote short-term relief for discomfort, and improve blood circulation.
After electrotherapy, you'll notice immediate relief from upper back pain, along with relaxed muscles. (See Product)
An increasing number of physicians are recommending acupuncture to relieve upper back pain. After your session, you may feel relaxed or energized, and you will likely experience a tingling sensation.
Upper back and neck pain is often caused by poor posture. This is the reason most doctors recommend wearing a back brace, as it keeps strain off the joints and muscles. A back brace also provides soothing compression and prevents re-injury.
A posture corrector keeps your shoulders back and aligns your spine to correct the poor posture that’s causing your upper back pain. They’re discreet and perfect for all-day wear.
A posture corrector addresses the root cause of your back pain, both alleviating pain and preventing future problems. (See Product)
When symptoms linger, you may want to consider chiropractic manipulation. Chiropractors perform safe spinal adjustments to realign abnormalities, reduce pain, resolve joint inflammation, and restore or enhance joint function. Some approaches use gentle force (spinal mobilization), while others have more force (spinal manipulation).
Upper Back Pain Exercises
Most rehabilitation programs include stretching and strengthening upper back pain exercises, which improve spinal alignment, ensure proper posture, and increase flexibility and mobility throughout the shoulders. Always inform your doctor before beginning any exercise routine.
Upper Back Stretch
Step 1: Sit in a chair with your feet flat on the floor.
Step 2: Cross both arms behind your head.
Step 3: Slowly bend forward, then arch backward.
Step 4: Return to the starting position, and repeat.
Step 5: Perform 3 sets of 5.
Arm Slide on Wall
Step 1: Stand or sit with your back flat against a wall.
Step 2: Place your elbows and wrists against the wall, shoulder-width apart.
Step 3: Slide your arms slowly upward as high as you can. Pause.
Step 4: Slide your arms back down to 90 degrees. Keep your back as flat as possible.
Step 5: Build up to 2 sets of 8.
Quadruped Arm and Leg Raise
Step 1: On a carpeted floor or yoga mat, get down on your hands and knees.
Step 2: Draw your belly button into your spine, and tighten your abdominal muscles.
Step 3: Slowly lift one arm and the opposite leg. Hold the position for 5 seconds.
Step 4: Lower your leg and arm slowly, then switch sides.
Step 5: Perform this exercise 10 times on each side.
Step 1: Lie on your stomach on a carpeted floor or yoga mat.
Step 2: Put your arms straight out at your sides. Keep your elbows straight and your thumbs facing toward the ceiling.
Step 3: Lift your arms slowly as you squeeze your shoulder blades together. Pause.
Step 4: Gently lower your arms.
Step 5: Build up to 3 sets of 15.
Step 1: Stand in an open doorway.
Step 2: Place both your hands on the door frame, slightly above your head.
Step 3: Lean forward slowly until you feel a stretch in the front of your shoulders.
Step 4: Hold for 15 to 30 seconds, inhaling and exhaling through your nose.
Step 5: Perform this exercise 3 to 5 times a day.
Taking Care of Your Upper Back Pain
Chronic upper back pain is not as common as neck or lower back pain, but it can still have a big impact on your quality of life. Consult your doctor and follow their instructions to make a full, timely recovery. Find a quality back brace to prevent further damage, and focus on correcting your posture so your back pain does not return.
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